“Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.” — Frederick Douglass (“The Hypocrisy of American Slavery”)
I once visited a strange foreign land. I was shocked to witness its people habitually engaged in activities that seemed exceedingly irrational. It was amusing to observe how progressive and free they presumed to be culturally and as individuals. For, unknown to them, a deep-rooted tribalism of the most servile sort dictated most of aspects of their lives.
For instance, certain tribes would drill holes into their members’ flesh, highlighting the openings with pebbles of various shapes and sizes. Many of these members would also allow certain people to carve obscure sketches and symbols into their skin in exchange for goods and services. At first, those receiving such modifications would express discomfort, which led me to believe that the process was punitive. But upon completion, the subject would leap up with an expression of deep pride, quickly gaining admiration and praise from peers.
Oddly, the individuals involved in this rite seemed to assume that it provided them a means of self-expression and individuality. But nothing could have been further from the truth; for, the presence and style of the markings was always determined according to the expectations of the group. Indeed, the point of allowing oneself to be marked in such ways was to display the etchings as a sort of public announcement of belonging and boasting. Rarely, if ever, did those tags remain concealed and personal.
In addition to self-mutilation, loud barbaric noises were common as a method of proving one’s tribal identity, status, and supposed worth. One group, for instance, would move about public spaces while creating deafening roars with devices they had affixed to the flashy carriages on which they traveled. They would also wear flamboyant clothing, often stamped with the emblems of the tribe that assembled those carriages, thus marking their perceived territory both visually and sonically.
Many females of this land were perplexing. They would vigorously protest and make all sorts of noise whenever a male or members of some other tribe attempted to exercise control over their bodies. One almost got the impression that they were attempting to defend some sense of personal freedom. But that impression faded quickly, as the women would then proceed, out of shame and peer pressure, to decorate and dye their bodies in the ways that their own tribe (esp. the male members) expected of them. Hair, eyes, lips, nails, skin, artificial body parts, stilts to increase height — not a single aspect of their appearance could be considered free or personal. The males, in their own ways, also decorated their bodies according to the tribe’s expectations. But many also applyed such cosmetic modifications to their material possessions in an odd attempt to announce virility and prowess.
Whenever an infant was born in this culture, the adults would not fully accept it unless a local shaman had taken a sharp rock and sliced away portions of its tiny genitalia, thus marking tribal membership in yet another bloody manner. Similar tribes would shun their newborns until a man who dressed differently from the rest had doused the helpless infant in water over which he had waved his hands. During these senseless rites, the infant would usually scream in pain or fear. But the parents and adult witnesses did not seem to care. After all, the pride that followed upon this fresh sense of belonging far outweighed, in their savage minds, the physical pain and distress they were inflicting on the child.
The selection of leaders in this culture was equally bizarre. Whenever the stars had returned to a certain position in the sky, certain loud individuals who happened to have more possessions (and thus power and status) than the others would stand before crowds of people while uttering certain sounds and performing certain gestures over and over, just as other such individuals had done so many times before.
This political ritual, I believe, was some sort of collective form of role-play in which tribe members would act as if they had power over their lives, much as a rain dancer attempts in his actions to recreate, and thus control the rain. The two most notable contenders in this game would pretend to oppose one another and behave as if they represented not only one tribe or the other, but also the entire population and its descendants. But the contenders themselves clearly had little in common with the people and rarely any clue or concern about what was really best for the community. The crowd would then divide into two halves, each side shouting at the other, often in mockery, though they were usually expressing the same ideas.
Following the shouting performance, members of each tribe would raise their hands to select one of two most notable individuals, while a group of chieftains from each tribe would pretend to tally the raised hands. For some reason, these exceedingly odd people believed that the best policy was always the one that the majority — no matter how slight — believed was best, as if there was some sort of mystical authority in larger numbers but not lesser ones.
When the ritual was complete, the new leaders would cease making those inspiring noises and gestures, often even proceeding to make opposite ones. They would then continue to preoccupy themselves with amassing possessions, power, and status, all at the common people’s expense — both those who did and those who did not select them to lead.
The two previously opposed tribes, however, would no longer care about the noises and gestures to which they had once reacted so passionately. Instead they would return to their daily routines, drudging through lives that this silly little ritual hadn’t improved much at all, and living right alongside members of the tribe they had not long before been conditioned to hate vehemently.
The single most perplexing aspect of this primitive society was its members’ apparent admiration for something they called ‘free-dum’. They appeared to believe that this idea was inherently important and necessary to their society — that is, if one can say that any idea at all lay behind what was largely inarticulate grunting. In fact, whenever the tribes selected their leaders, they would show most interest in those individuals who promised to protect the ‘free-dum’ of all tribes. The reality, however, was that the tribes were selecting leaders to restrict, suppress, remove, and trample ‘free-dum’ little by little. After all, the existence of this thing, which the leaders pretended to value so highly, in truth scared them and threatened their status.
Upon leaving this land, I was pleased to return to the rationality of my own world, where freedom and individuality would never succumb to socio-political pressure and tribalism. In retrospect, I concluded that the primitive obsession with social control I had witnessed was a defense mechanism. The fear of change and death was so strong among these tribes that they would do and believe anything to convince themselves that ritual gave them some sort of purchase on immortality. The bonds of unquestioned tradition — as these folks believed on a subconscious level — would always outlast the individuals forced to engage in it. Freedom, therefore, in their cave-dweller minds, was the equivalent of death and oblivion.
© Joshua J. Reynolds 2014. All rights reserved.